Giant predatory worm’s historical fossil burrows found

Millions of years in the past, large predatory worms so long as an grownup human terrorized the ocean. The fearsome creatures hid underneath the ocean flooring, ready to grab unwitting prey with their slicing jaws and drag them underground to be consumed — like they do immediately, just lately found fossils recommend.

The fossils are “very, very distinctive,” stated Shahin Dashtgard, a professor of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who co-authored a new research describing them.

“They’re like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the rock record.”

The fossil burrow opening, left, is in comparison with a contemporary Bobbit worm burrow opening. The researchers discovered that the fossil and trendy burrows have been comparable. (Paleoenvironntal Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University, Chutinun Mora)

Unlike conventional fossils that are often shaped from the exhausting components of an animal’s physique, equivalent to its bones or shell, the worm fossils are “trace fossils” consisting of non-biological traces equivalent to footprints or, on this case, a burrow. The fossils are described in a study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

Dashtgard famous that as a result of worms have gentle our bodies, they’re hardly ever fossilized.

“So, the burrows they make is really the only record we have of what the ecosystem would look like and how diverse the ecosystem was.”

Evoke the monsters of science fiction

The researchers suggest that the traditional worm was much like the modern-day Bobbit worm or sand striker, a marine predator that lives in tropical and subtropical seas within the Indo-Pacific Region and grows as much as three metres lengthy. It hides in underground burrows with simply its head uncovered, placing and grabbing prey, equivalent to fish or shellfish with sharp, scissor-like jaws and dragging them into its burrow.

Bobbit worms are named for the slicing capacity of their jaws, which was likened to the slicing that abused spouse Lorena Bobbit did to take away her husband’s penis in 1989. They have additionally been in comparison with sand crawling monsters in science fiction worlds equivalent to Star Wars, Dune and Tremors.

Bobbit worms and their family are thought to have existed for a really very long time. Fossil jaws of what is considered the oldest Bobbit worm have been found in a 400 million year old rock formation in Ontario.

But as a result of they’re gentle, worms are hardly ever discovered within the fossil report.

That’s why researchers have begun in search of hint fossils of soft-bodied marine animals. Ludvig Löwemark, a professor of geosciences at National Taiwan University and Masakazu Nara, a professor of organic sciences at Kochi University in Japan, two co-authors of the research, have been in search of hint fossils of one other historical animal when they got here throughout one thing uncommon in a 20 million-year-old sandstone formation in Taiwan.

Figuring out what it was turned the venture of Yu Yen Pan, a grasp’s scholar working with Löwemark who’s now a PhD scholar at Simon Fraser University.

An animation exhibits how the hint fossil would have shaped. (Yu Yen Pan)

Key piece of the puzzle

The rock where the fossils have been initially discovered, Badouzi promontory, was an historical continental shelf about 30 or 40 metres under the floor of the ocean, stated Pan.  It was seemingly much like the atmosphere discovered off the coast of Taiwan immediately. Other fossil proof exhibits that it was seemingly a coral reef populated by animals equivalent to stingrays and other fish, sea urchins and crustaceans equivalent to shrimp and lobsters.

The first fossils have been principally fragments left behind by erosion, so the researchers determined to search for comparable fossils in one other a part of the identical rock layer a ways away in an space known as Yehliu Geopark.

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Löwemark known as Pan over. He had discovered an entire fossil,  beginning with a funnel on the top that narrows to a cylindrical tube about three centimetres in diameter, descending straight into the bottom for 70 or 80 centimetres, earlier than bending horizontally into an L-shape, reaching a complete size of about two metres

“We were super excited,” Pan recalled. “This really could help us to connect the puzzle together and make the story more complete.”

The top a part of the fossil burrow, seen from the facet, is funnel formed, with feathery traces from the disturbance of the soil that’s considered attributable to the worm pulling prey into the burrow. (Paleoenvironntal Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University)

In complete, the researchers discovered 319 fossil specimens on the two websites. A chemical evaluation of the fossils discovered they have been excessive in iron, which is typical of burrows made by soft-bodied animals. That’s as a result of they have a tendency to stabilize their burrows with mucus that attracts microbes that enrich the sediment with iron.

The reality that the tunnel was L-shaped additionally advised that it was made by a soft-bodied animal, as such animals cannot dig too deep earlier than the bottom will get too exhausting and compacted for them to proceed, and they should begin digging horizontally.

The burrows have been totally different in dimension and form from burrows comprised of other animals, equivalent to eels or razor clams. 

But when the researchers in contrast the fossil burrows to the burrows of contemporary Bobbit worms, which inhabit trendy ecosystems not a lot totally different from these that the fossil was present in, they appeared very comparable.

Dashtgard suggests that means the worms have been residing in the same atmosphere for fairly a very long time — about 20 million years.

‘Feathery footprint’ from Taiwan

The researchers named their new fossil Pennichnus formosae. The first a part of the title refers back to the feathery (“penna” in Latin) “footprint” (“ichnus” in Latin) left within the top “funnel” of the burrow by the way in which the sediments have been disturbed when the animal pulled its prey inside. “Formosae” after Formosa, a former title for Taiwan, honours the place it was discovered, 

Pan stated the fossil is notable as a result of it offers clues about looking behaviour of an historical invertebrate, one thing that is kind of uncommon.

The research coauthors included, from left, Shahin Dashtgard, Ludvig Lowemark, Yu Yen Pan and Masakazu Nara, standing on proper. (Paleoenvironmental Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University)

David Rudkin was one of many researchers who studied the Ontario Bobbit worm jaw fossils however was not concerned within the hint fossil research. Rudkin, a retired assistant curator on the Royal Ontario Museum and a retired lecturer on the University of Toronto, stated while he is not an skilled in hint fossils, he discovered the interpretation within the new research “pretty convincing.”

“The kicker, of course, would be finding a direct association in the form of either ‘jaw’ elements or soft-body bits within the burrows, left after the animal died in place,” he stated in an e-mail.

Unfortunately, the situations that protect burrows and people that protect our bodies are typically fairly totally different, so that they’re hardly ever discovered collectively, he stated. 

“Under the circumstances,” he stated, “I think the authors have done a nice job of making the case for these being Bobbit burrows!”

This is an inventive reconstruction of Websteroprion amrstrongi, a Bobbit worm that lived 400 million years in the past in Ontario. Its fossil jaws have been found and reported by a group of researchers that included David Rudkin on the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. (James Ormiston)

More burrows more likely to be discovered

Murray Gingras is professor on the University of Alberta who research traces made by trendy animals and compares them to the fossil report. He wasn’t concerned within the new research however has gone to Australia to check the burrows of contemporary Bobbit worms as a part of his personal analysis.

One problem with hint fossils, he stated, is that many animals can make very comparable traces and determining which one any given hint got here from requires some interpretation. But on this case, he thinks the researchers’ interpretation is cheap and properly argued.

“I think it’s a fun discovery,” he stated. 

He stated he is stunned such fossil burrows have not been discovered earlier than given how widespread Bobbit worms are and the way conspicuous their burrows are.

He suspects that many extra will be discovered now that other researchers know what to search for, and that will assist uncover the animals’ actions and distribution over the previous 20 million years.

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